by MAX PIZARRO
The big money donors to the Republican Party turned out for the State Committee's fundraising event with President George W. Bush at the Raritan Center Complex in Edison on Wednesday night, but GOP lawmakers either stayed away or stayed way under the radar, downplaying their presence at an event where the media was given limited access.
"The experts tell me that with hard work, there's a good chance that the statehouse and the State Senate become Republican,” Bush told the GOP crowd. “And I'm glad to be a part of helping, and I want to thank you all for helping, as well."
A Republican staffer said the party would clear about $400,000 from the event – money earmarked for the fall legislative contests.
News agencies reported Thursday that Bush helped earn $675,000.
Attendees paid as much as $5,000 per picture with the President, but a profusion of recognizable faces and voices in the party were unavailable available for comment Wednesday night in the hours following Bush's visit to Jersey, where his popularity has nosedived under 30%.
"I believe you win elections by telling the people what you believe, not necessarily what they want to hear," Bush said, standing at a podium affixed with the presidential seal. "And here are the things that we believe: We believe that the number one priority of this country is to protect the people of the United States from further attack. And that's why we believe in a strong national defense. We believe in supporting those who are in the homeland defending this country, and we believe those who are defending it overseas."
"We love you, we love you," a woman's voice cried from the audience to Bush.
Those who didn't attend the fundraiser described other pressing matters.
"I was in trial today, caught up in work," said Assembly Assistant Minority Whip Jon Bramnick, "The judge wouldn't give me an adjournment for the President."
"No, I wasn't there, I had a business appointment," said John Sette, chairman of the Morris County Republican Party.
"I tried to get there," said Somerset County Chairman Dale Florio.
Many GOP legislators who are in primary and general election races this year shrunk away Wednesday night when asked to comment on the President's visit here.
GOP State Chairman Tom Wilson introduced the headliner Wednesday.
"Our President is a man of conviction, courage and compassion, and we are so thankful he is our President," Wilson said.
Wilson's challenger for the state chairmanship in a contest scheduled exactly two weeks from today, Peter Mancuso, the former Morris Township Mayor, also attended the fundraiser.
"Dissenting thoughts come into all of our consciousness," said Mancuso, "but it's important he (the President) be respected for his office, and history will be the ultimate judge. Notwithstanding people's feelings about the war, critical support for the President comes from within his own party."
Bush thanked Wilson, and made a special point of thanking Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance and Assembly Leader Alex DeCroce, and George Gilmore, chair of the Ocean County Republican Party.
In his speech he highlighted his aggressive stance on fighting terrorism.
"They hate the United States and what we stand for," Bush said of terrorists. "We need to stay on offense and fight them overseas so we don't have to fight them here at home."
Later he said America must defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq so "we don't have to fight them here."
The President also underscored the Republican Party's commitment to low taxes ("If you want the American people to do better, you cut the taxes, is what you do") and limited government ("They (Washington lawmakers) think they can spend your money better than you can") and said he was proud to be commander-in-chief of those who wear the uniform.
"We believe the role of government is to unleash the great compassion of this country," Bush said to applause.